In 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison arguing that a federal bond should be repaid within one generation, because if a borrower were allowed indefinite time to repay a loan he could, during his own lifetime, use up the products of the land for future generations so that the land would effectively belong to the dead and not to the living.

The context of the salmon’s problems may be different but Jefferson’s logic is compelling. No nation should be allowed to squander what remains of such a precious resource. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) salmon catches in EU countries have declined by more than 90 per cent, partly for unknown reasons but mostly from very obvious causes: overfishing, damming of rivers, pollution and habitat damage and the negative consequences of in-shore salmon farming. 

There remains a Swiss law that you must not serve salmon to your servants more than three times a week. 

The Atlantic salmon was once to be found in abundance from the Iberian Peninsula to the Arctic and from North America to Northern Russia. There are ancient records in Devon, England, stating that salmon parr and smolts in the River Axe were so numerous that they were netted out and spread on the fields as a fertiliser. Until the French Revolution salmon still ran French rivers in great numbers. The Rhine, Western Europe´s most important waterway, used to be the most prolific salmon river in the world, and there remains a Swiss law that you must not serve salmon to your servants more than three times a week. The same law used to exist for workers in London near the River Thames.

The problems underlying wild salmon management are manifold. There are natural fluctuations (due to weather, temperature, rainfall etc); threats to the maritime life-cycle as well as the freshwater, a huge range of legitimate exploiter groups, an over-abundance of some natural predators, and guestimates as opposed to exact data resulting in poor science and excuses and, finally, the issue of private vs public ownership.   

Despite efforts to bring about an international body to protect the stock, inter-governmental agencies have failed to give the salmon the safeguards it must have to complete its full life-cycle. This international discriminatory body, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO), set up in 1982, was biased towards biological research instead of dealing with the main problems. It sets quotas for the Arctic nations (Greenland and Faroes) but no limits within the fisheries jurisdictions of EU countries, Norway or Canada.

A genuine international treaty should provide equal rights and responsibilities for all its signatory nations. Salmon research needs to be focused on the wellbeing of the resource and all research must be complemented by powerful conservation measures and practical management in rivers, estuaries and at sea. 

Nations could never agree on measures that would protect the salmon on their migration routes. They allowed mixed-stock fisheries to continue and to take huge numbers of fish with no means of telling from which river systems the fish came or whether they were catching fish from a healthy stock or killing the last survivors from a river in desperate decline.

Then private sector interests on both sides of the Atlantic began to realise that if the salmon was to be saved it was up to them to make the running. They promoted management plans that covered the whole life cycle from egg-laying, through the in-river phase, to the months and years during which the young fish grow to adulthood on the high seas feeding grounds and finally return back home to spawn.

All the scientific observations made on salmon during the 20th century have not prevented the decline. Common sense and practical action are still the missing factors in salmon management. 

Various theories of sustainability were introduced but the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) led a crusade based on a philosophy of restoring abundance. It emphasised the glaring errors of neglect that were threatening the marine phase of the salmon’s life cycle and promoted restoration programmes that protected the fish, particularly while it was at sea. Atlantic salmon stocks worldwide are dwindling dangerously. Time is running out. 

The imperative now is to stop the wholescale killing of fish where we can, and do this in an economic and fair fashion that finds alternative employment and long-term rewards for commercial fisheries that can no longer harvest the stock sustainably. Theoretical studies may be useful one day, but they will not stop the decline until it is too late. Practicalities are the only priority now.

The wild Atlantic salmon is one of the world’s great voyagers and throughout its life it has to travel from warmer climates to the Arctic regions. So for a species operating at the limit of its range the salmon has to adapt to many natural variants. Like other creatures, it is well adapted to harsh and variable conditions even in the Arctic where there is a marginal zone for a number of its inhabitants. In their home rivers, too, salmon can survive turbulent changes in precipitation and temperature. They also survive sand siltation, volcanic eruptions and droughts.

But the one thing salmon cannot survive is a mixed-stock fishery or any other type of uncontrolled human exploitation. Salmon also need an abundant food supply and if their food continues to be removed by industrial fisheries, salmon stocks will continue to remain low, no matter how much we spend on in-river projects and improving the young salmon’s environment.  The adverse effects of the pelagic fisheries need to be thoroughly investigated and, in the multi-species management context, their role needs to be reappraised.

In areas where salmon farming takes place there is clear evidence of wild Atlantic salmon suffering from severe damage caused by an explosion in fish lice and threats of disease and pollution. The most severe real danger is the large-scale escapes of farmed fish and the genetic pollution caused to wild salmon. Already this has caused damage in Norway for up to two thirds of all their salmon rivers.  The current infrastructure of fish cages should be replaced with improved technology to help farmers, a combination of closed containment and land-based farms to ensure a safe and sustainable salmon farming industry.

Gave de Oloron salmon river in France

Humans play a vital role in the future of the salmon. If we insist on logging practices, more dams and the removal of habitat in the interest of human ambitions, the future for the salmon looks bleak. Very considerable conservation efforts are already needed to repair the damage done by industrial development, agriculture and forestry. The reduction of genetic diversity and the introduction of foreign species are other serious threats to the salmon’s long-term prospects.

Immediate conservation strategies must now be prioritised in favour of the salmon rather than reliance on further research. All the scientific observations made on salmon during the 20th century have not prevented the decline. Common sense and practical action are still the missing factors in salmon management. 

Conservation efforts must also be cost-effective and involve cooperative and collaborative measures that bring together various local, regional and international interests in protecting whole ecosystems, both in concept and in practice. This includes management of natural predators such as cormorants and the ever-growing population of seals.

Maintaining genetic diversity among and within salmon populations is of the utmost importance, particularly as fisheries’ exploitation has contributed to the loss of some populations and the alteration of others. Some examples of the effects of current fishing practices are the lowering of the sea-age and the altering of the run-timing of spawning populations such that there are fewer large multi-sea-winter salmon and proportionately fewer early-returning or spring-run salmon. Spawning populations have been reduced to levels lower even than those required for conservation. 

The UK Government recently introduced an ambitious 5-point Environment Agency plan to restore salmon in England. It sets out very well-meaning actions but it will fail unless mixed-stock netting is ended along the entire east coast of the country. NASF has suggested that the cessation of netting must be properly compensated through voluntary negotiations. 

The NASF believes that there is no sound scientific way of “measuring” what is acceptable in terms of commercial netting and that, bearing in mind the significant economic importance of angling and its current decline, all forms of netting of wild migratory fish should be terminated or suspended for the foreseeable future. Angling is not a problem. Anglers safely return the vast majority of the salmon they catch.

The NASF coalition therefore demands a redirection of the salmon resource that would take it away from commercial fishing and allow the recreational fishery to re-establish itself, which would create a great many new and rewarding jobs in rural communities throughout the North Atlantic range.

The international salmon fraternity contains many theorists and churns out many manifestos. However, NASF bases its efforts on making market forces work for the salmon’s environment instead of against it. By carefully calculating the costs and putting a price tag on the remedial efforts required, a recovery will slowly take place. 

One of the salmon’s greatest problems is the lack of an integrated international approach to its conservation. The key salmon nations around the Atlantic (Greenland, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, Russia and Norway) agree that the European Union has no jurisdiction over salmon that mainly follow migration routes that take them into coastal waters. Furthermore, these nations, having had sad experience of the EU’s handling of fisheries issues in general, have no intention of ever giving this power to the EU Commission.  

Iceland is perhaps the only country where salmon stocks remain healthy. The rights to salmon fishing have been privately owned since the land was first settled during the Viking age. The private sector has always played a leading role in its protection and governance in order to secure future abundance.

This means that the selection of management option is a matter of choice for individual countries and the only way conservationists can tackle the variety of indifferent or selfish attitudes of some of these nations is through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Many of the salmon stocks that originate in the rivers of Europe are inherently multi-national resources because they cross international boundaries during their oceanic migrations. Over 95 per cent of the biomass of European salmon is produced in mainly Arctic waters outside Europe. Many countries are thus both host countries and countries of origin. Article 66(1) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) directs that “state(s) in whose rivers anadromous stocks originate shall have the primary interest in and responsibility for such stocks”. This confers on individual member countries, such as Germany, France and Spain, substantial rights in determining measures – such as total allowable catches (TACs) – to protect their stocks while they are migrating in the coastal waters of Ireland, Norway and the UK.

Up to now, nation states have chosen for political reasons to ignore the provisions of the convention. However, NASF argues that, for the future of the salmon, both the spirit and the letter of the convention should be made a reality. Here is our plan for sustainable, economic and environmental success:

What European politicians must do now is the following: 

• End mixed-stock salmon fisheries as a priority, implementing the established scientific advice.

• Atlantic Salmon management needs leadership.  Support conservation efforts outside NASCO, ie; engage in collaborative conservation activities with local interests that lead to innovative management practices. 

• obby for the UNCLOS to be implemented between each EU country. Iceland is perhaps the only country where salmon stocks remain healthy. The rights to salmon fishing have been privately owned since the land was first settled during the Viking age. The private sector has always played a leading role in its protection and governance in order to secure future abundance.

• Make financial inducements to encourage fish farmers to adopt closed containment or land-based fish farms.

• Build a growth strategy. 

• Establish a joint action plan with the private sector (politicians cannot do it alone).

• Consider a new forward-thinking international convention for Atlantic salmon.

Mostly what is needed is coordinated action before it is too late. Now.